Ghost Fleet: The Best Techno-thriller since Red Storm Rising.

July 20, 2015

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Soon into the techno-thriller Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer and August Cole, the commanding officer of the USS Coronado instructs his officers: “I want you to think about the various trends, the why, and the what-next.” The CO might as well have been channeling the authors or vice versa. Both Singer and Cole are experienced, serious, and respected non-fiction authors, but their first foray into fiction is important in answering the CO’s questions. Fiction sometimes offers a means of explaining trends and issues that might be more advantageous than non-fiction. The general public might not be interested in or have available Congressional Research Service and Congressional Budget Office reports or think tank studies. Fiction, however, has the ability to bridge that gap between the defense infrastructure and the public. For example, how many secular readers would have been familiar with Typhoon– or Los Angeles-class submarines prior to The Hunt for Red October? Ghost Fleet similarly renders technology and its applications to a possible war with China understandable to anyone. More importantly, its often jaw-dropping explorations of how new technologies might be used should make this book required reading for all military personnel, who will undoubtedly encounter these technologies firsthand.

At an International Thriller Writers conference in New York several years ago, a panelist said that a fiction writer is given a great deal of latitude. He or she can get any fact wrong — except facts related to firearms. I learned that lesson the hard way after the publication of my first novel, The Aden Effect, when the only critical emails I received were related to the capabilities of a particular weapon. On that count, one scene in Ghost Fleet is set in room SR-216, the McCain Senate Office Building. Unless the Russell Senate Office Building was renamed, then room numbers have a prefix of “S” for Senate and second letter after whom it was named (“H” for Hart and “D” for Dirksen). Consequently, the room should have been SM-216. That’s it. That’s about all I can offer as a critique of this book. It is fantastic.

Set in the near-future, Ghost Fleet begins at a staccato pace with the introduction of countless new characters and situations. Technologies seemingly materialize on every page at a dizzying pace, but perhaps that’s the authors’ point — at no time in history have so many inventions exploded onto the market so quickly. If we are unprepared for the barrage of new technologies on each page, how can we adapt so that we have time to understand them and their consequences in the real world? In addition, it reminds us that the next war could be death by a thousand cuts rather than overwhelming force by conventional platforms. Singer and Cole could well have mired the book in details of each technology. But instead of immersing the readers in Department of Defense program element descriptions of basic research, applied research, and advanced technology demonstration programs, the authors insert each technology at a steady pace without slowing down the various plotlines.

The authors’ respective knowledge of the military shines clearly throughout the work. Some readers will instantly recognize the admiral who’s abandoned standard PowerPoint briefs for the single-picture slide to tell a story, the shipbuilding funding support from a particular senator, or in-the-weeds Navy programs such as PACE (Program for Afloat College Education.) The authors also aren’t shy about subtly critiquing lengthy acquisition times for ships such as the Ford-class aircraft carrier or the less-than-subtle jab at the Littoral Combat Ship with “a main gun fit for chasing away pirates, but not much more.”

The work has plenty to keep readers attentive, including military history and pop culture references such as direct and indirect homages to the Battlestar Galactica reboot, Star Trek, Red Dawn, and Tron. This is a book best savored in as few sittings as possible. The authors are clear enough in their message that America is vulnerable, and they’re right. But they’re also correct that innovative thinking will save us in the end. Ghost Fleet is the best techno-thriller since Red Storm Rising.


Claude Berube teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy. His second novel, Syren’s Song, will be published by Naval Institute Press in November.

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5 thoughts on “Ghost Fleet: The Best Techno-thriller since Red Storm Rising.

  1. Red Storm Rising, Team Yankee and 38 North Yankee better books by far. The PC bent of the book ruined it all for me. I was very disappointed in the book.

  2. Sir, if you can’t find anything further to critique the books beyond they named a room wrong, I can help:

    Early in the book the enemy activates a super weapon in space. It’s mentioned that it only has 45 minutes to be used once activated, then it’s dead. The same weapon is then used several times in the following months.

    The book specifically mentions that the Aegis cruisers and destroyers survive the initial onslaught. Then they just…disappear. Except for one. Because…Ghost Fleet. We need to need the Ghost Fleet.

    Speaking of those missing ships, why don’t they use their SM-3 missiles that can take out enemy satellites and even the score a bit? Seems to me a couple of national security experts ought to know they can be used for that.

    All “high tech” solutions are judged untrustworthy or broken by the enemy, which cybers the US to death. OK fine, it’s their book, their rules. And thus we need the Ghost Fleet because it is made up of older boats. Then the Ghost Fleet at the end uses the friggin Zumwalt and all sorts of high technology including AI learning missile swarms and drone swarms to win. Because…wait, why do those work again?

    The Chinese put up exactly. one. RADAR. in a large group of islands. A really, really large group of islands (I’m trying not to spoil too much here). Thus when that one is taken out, they are blinded. Completely. Huh.

    Somehow the Chinese and the Russians, working together, manage to sortie a fleet consisting of 3 aircraft carriers (that part makes sense), one cruiser, 4 destroyers, and 2 frigates. Despite not taking losses earlier. That’s…it. Wow.

    Look, I get that the book needs a narrative since it is a novel. I get that to serve that narrative things need to happen a certain way. So everything goes wrong when it needs to, and later everything goes right when it needs to serve that narrative, even to the point of “wow, a tree fell on this critical guy’s head just at the very moment he was needed” (no, that doesn’t happen exactly, but close enough). The book is interesting food for thought, and a decent way to burn some hours. But this is just not what I expected out of “two leading experts on the cutting edge of national security” as they are billed.

    1. Sir,
      Good points, but my sense as an author and reviewer was to assess Ghost Fleet’s overall structure, how the story was told, and any potential utility and merit. This is a work of fiction and in any work of fiction – particularly in techno-thrillers and military thrillers set in the future whether its days, years, or decades – the reader has to suspend at least some disbelief. In my view, the interwoven storylines worked. The characters were believable and represented the range of sacrifice to arrogance. The expression of how the war was conducted and the fog of war were well delivered. Technologies can change radically in just a few years. There are black swans. If the book was set two weeks ago then some of the points you made would be more valid, although is your point about the SM-3s valid if they were also susceptible to infected hardware/software? Regardless, it’s not a non-fiction work and if you’re looking for that kind of accuracy, both of Ghost Fleet’s authors have written enough of that. The latitude we provided to the old Star Trek in believing it was the only ship in all of Star Fleet that could be everywhere and do everything without the assistance of other ships in order to advance a storyline and tell a broader story should also be applied here.

      Thanks for your perspective,

  3. In terms of prose style, Clancy’s Red Storm Rising or Ralph Peters’ Red Army still wins out. (Red Army, in particular, cleverly avoids the politics side of things entirely: why is the Soviet Army at war with the West? Well…the privates who discuss it don’t know, the generals who would know are too busy to discuss it. The reader is left with his imagination.) Ghost Fleet is fairly competent at what it does, but I feel it would have benefited by one or two more editing cycles–not for the technological or plotline side of things, but for pacing and styling.

    Stylistically: to give one example that stuck in my mind, slight spoilers here: the ORZ Orzel’s last message, “Za naszą i waszą wolność”. A poignant moment to go out on, certainly. Yet that scene would have been much strengthened without the further explanation from the officer, that it was a common epitaph for Polish freedom fighters. With respect to the authors, we readers can figure out that it was an epitaph once we were given the translation; leaving it unstated would’ve been better. The additional explanation detracted from the scene. We were unnecessarily told something that we had just been shown.

    I suppose that’s the main literary flaw with Ghost Fleet: too much telling, not quite enough showing. Too much of a rush to get to the action, not enough setup to get there. I remember being struck by how short Ghost Fleet was compared to Red Storm Rising; I think that brevity is part of the problem. For all his flaws as a writer, Clancy is an absolute master at ratcheting up tension, patiently building plotlines, and moving actors into position, before everything cuts loose in a gloriously choreographed moment. Singer and Cole, alas, aren’t there yet.

  4. if innovative thinking is the key to victory then perhaps the faith that we will be saved in the end is unfounded. The innovations seem to occurring on the other side, eg Red China’s titanic and titanically successful espionage efforts, Russia’s success in special warfare that seems on the verge of dismantling NATO, ISiS’ success, survival and growth, Pak Army/ISI’s defeat of the US and NATO in Afghanistan while getting us to pay them to do it, and on. We don’t seem to have it anymore.